Their wild ways

Docu feature

Their wild ways

A woman working with lions and leopards as a forest guard! The minute you hear this, you go, “No, never,” or “”Poor thing, she must have been forced to do it.” In any event, the consensus would be that she won’t be able to handle the work, and she must be having a hard time. But one person would disagree passionately with you, and that would be the woman in question herself.

Meet Raseela Vadhera, the forest guard and head of the Animal Rescue team of Gir Forest. She and her unit have successfully handled over 900 wild animal rescues, 627 of them in one year alone, without injury to either the animals or forest department personnel. Her story and that of the other women forest guards of Gir Forest are the focus of the four-part documentary called The Lion Queens of Gir airing on Discovery Channel. Interviewing her was a wonderful experience.

Asked about the history of women forest guards, she says that in 2007, Gujarat’s forest department started employing women. At first, it was expected that they would opt for soft desk jobs. But their very first woman employee opted to be a forest guard.

“When I got this job, even my family thought, ‘What can she, a woman, do in the forest?’” she says. “But I thought, why not take on a job involving animals? These days, women are taking up all kinds of jobs, so why shouldn’t I give it a shot?”

So she joined the animal rescue team. Without prior training, she was a novice in the field. But others helped her learn various aspects of animal rescue, she says, giving credit to her superiors and colleagues. Now she teaches her juniors what to do when confronted by animals, and how to rescue them.

Isn’t she scared? After all, the rescue team works with deadly big cats like lions and leopards that are cornered or hurt. But Raseela is categorical. “No, I’m not! The thing is that animals don’t attack unless they are actively harmed.”

Family life doesn’t have to interfere with work. Raseela herself was married last year. “We let people know about our work beforehand, so there is no problem,” she adds.

When asked about a memorable rescue, Raseela talks of the time she helped rescue a leopard from a well. A leopard had fallen into a dry well that was poorly maintained. In order to be rescued, it had to be tranquilised. However, it was impossible to find the right angle from which to shoot the tranquiliser dart since the leopard was hiding under an overhang. Raseela volunteered to go down into the well in a metal cage that was barely big enough to hold her. Other guards lowered the cage into the well by means of ropes until Raseela was clear of the overhang. She was able to shoot the dart, which tranquilised the leopard. It was then rescued, and after treatment, released into the wild.

The forest department at Gir deals with the rescue of lions, leopards, vipers and crocodiles. After the rescue operations, animals are treated for injuries, implanted with microchips for easy identification and tracking, and released. Orphaned cubs and other young ones are raised in crèches and when grown, released in the wild.

Raseela is all praise for the locals. She acknowledges that without their help, forest officials would not be able to do their work. “They know how to live with the animals,” she says. “They are aware that lions and leopards keep other animals from destroying their crops. They take measures to help trapped animals, and then inform us.” According to her, poaching in Gir has come down drastically due to the strength and activities of the forest guards.

How do villagers deal with the idea of women forest guards? “At first they think, what is a woman going to do? After they see me work, they think if a woman can do this work, maybe their daughters can too.”

Raseela’s message to young girls and women of India is simple: “If you are firm about what you want to do, there is nothing that you cannot accomplish. If joining the forest department is what you want to do, you can do so. It is good, rewarding work, and you can be proud of yourself.” She signs off with an invitation: “Come to Gir and see what we are accomplishing!”

Watch Lion Queens Of India, Mondays at 9 pm, on Discovery Channel.

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